FREDDY'S BOOK is a brilliant novel about a 16th-century Swedish knight who, with the Devil's assistance, helps Gustav Vasa gain the throne and then, with a bishop's assistance, kills the Devil. Going strictly by internal evidence one might suppose Freddy's Book to be the work of the offspring of an illicit but delightful union between Ingmar Bergman and Isak Dinesen; but it was written by John Gardner (who, characteristically, insists that it was written by Freddy).
They say that inside every fat man is a thin man trying to get out. Inside John Gardner, whose jacket photographs show what looks like a very sizeable fellow, there must be a really enormous man trying to get out, and succeeding. The narrator of the fine Gothic tale that introduces the main story is a very tall and bulky professor, who meets (in strange circumstances) Freddy, a giant, who has written a book about an eight-foot Swedish knight. All this height and girth might seem a bit obsessive, but it is in fact enjoyable. We have had lots of books about little creeps, and after all Mr. Sammler is not the only inhabitant of his planet.
It should also be observed that the Devil is even larger, very much larger, than the other big fellows in Freddy's Book. He is one of the largest and most convincing devils to be found in modern literature; he is very stupid and very subtle; and his eventual murder at the hands and bone knife of the knight is an event of great dramatic power and originality and of most devious and echoing implications. The tale left me mystified and satisfied to the highest degree. Who could ask for anything more?
Freddy's Book is illustrated in darkly appropriate black-and-white by Daniel Biamonte. Catherine Kanner's illustrations to Vlemk the Box-Painter are elegant and intelligent, but vitiated by Beardsleyism. One must wonder why so many illustrators of fantasy seem scarcely to use their powers of fantasy, the concrete visual imagination which is their birthright as artists, but limit themselves to the style and mannerisms of Beardsley, Rackham, Nielsen and other late-Victorian and Edwardian minor artists. A tradition there must be, but why might it not start from Durer, or Rembrandt, or Gericault, or Klee? Why must fantasy characters and fantasy places always be drawn so clean, and pretty, and shiny, and twee? Is there no dirt in Middle Earth?
So I arrive grumpily at Vlemk, which is what I think one must call a minor work. It has charm and interest; it plays in narrative form with some of the ideas discoursed upon in Gardner's On Moral Fiction and with some other ideas all its own; but it does not seem to arrive anywhere. It remains in between. It sets off in a manner suited to adult or child, the straightforward narrative mode of the tale told aloud: "Once a man and wife lived in a vinegar jug by the sea," "There was once a king of the Sakya clan," "There once was a man who made pictures on boxes. . . ." But the matter is intended for a highly sophisticated readership, and so the folktale manner soon sounds affected; nor is it consistently maintained. In the same way, the setting, the time/place where it happens, is neither here nor there.
In On Moral Fiction Gardner made it plain that "truth of place" is something he can cheerfully dispense with, going so far as to say that "truth is useful in realistic art but is much less necessary to the fabulous." Alas, I could not disagree more strongly. Effective works of fantasy are distinguished by their often relentless accuracy of detail, by their exactness of imagination, by the coherence and integrity of their imagined world -- by, precisely, their paradoxical truthfulness. (I assert this not only of The Lord of the Rings or Le Petit Prince but of beowulf -- in the latter case the "truth of place" being not visual, but psychological.) An infallible sign of amateur or careless fantasy-writing is the blurred detail, the fudged artifact, the stupid anachronism that proclaims, "This is just a fantasy, folks, so it doesn't really matter." It matters more in fantasy than anywhere else, since in fantasy we stand on no common mundane ground, but have only the fantasist to trust: he is our only spaceship, he is all our hippogriff. If he lets us down -- pffft.
So I found most grievous Gardner's coy or careless references to garbagemen and biologists in his stock generic-medieval setting. And why does the box-painter take 30 mortal pages to carry the talking picture to the princess? Because if he did it sooner, if, in other words, he behaved like a human being, it would subvert the allegory. But why make the story a bloody allegory? It's a lovely idea, the fierce little miniature portrait that talks back. If only Gardner had told it with faith in its reality, if only he had honored his fable with confidence in its truth! This need not have been a minor work. But everybody no matter how major is allowed their minor works; and anyhow we may all rejoice that we've got Freddy's Book, and its inexhaustible author, Gardner, Son of Grendel's Mother.